Sundance: Two Startling Documentaries Question the Limits of Our Vision

"Hale County This Morning, This Evening" and "Minding the Gap" both redefine cinematic language in fascinating new ways


It’s not every day that you witness a new cinematic language being born, but watching RaMell Ross’s evocatively titled documentary Hale County, This Morning, This Evening qualifies. The director, a photographer and teacher who was coaching basketball in the middle of the Black Belt region of the American South, knew the subjects of his documentary for several years before deciding to create a film around them. The finished work, a half decade in the making, is informed by his deep familiarity with its characters, which might be one reason why he has the confidence to abandon traditional narrative structures and strike out on his own lyrical path.

Throughout Hale County, Ross fixes his camera on quotidian moments, fragments of scenes. A woman tapping a flyswatter against her knee. A girl casually braiding her hair. A toddler running back and forth across a small living room. A droplet of sweat falling off a ball player. The shadow of a football throw. This kind of cutaway might provide some lively background atmosphere in a typical film, but for Ross this is the foreground, even as he starts to focus on his more “traditional” subjects: Quincy and Daniel, African-American teens living in a quiet Alabama town. Quincy works at the catfish plant, supporting a young family. Daniel has dreams of leaving and making a life for himself; he sees school as a way out, and basketball as a way through school. When we see him working on his outside shot — with Ross keeping the camera so tight that we mostly just see the boy’s shoulders — we’re not just watching a young athlete practicing, we’re watching someone in the midst of an existential task.

By sticking to his impressionistic perspective, by fracturing his narrative, Ross achieves something genuinely poetic — a film whose very lightness is the key to its depth. Hale County traverses years, encompasses tragedy and beauty, all in just 78 minutes. His is an empathetic camera, focusing on the kinds of details that pull us into this world, with a photographer’s eye for taking everyday moments and finding transcendence in them.

But there’s something more significant going on here. Occasionally, the text of cryptic little phrases and questions flash briefly across the screen. The one that really grabbed me asks, “How do you not frame someone?” That might sound gnomic, but it lies at the heart of Ross’s achievement. By fragmenting our point-of-view, he draws our attention to what we can’t know. All too often, these longitudinal documentaries — movies that chart people’s lives over multiple years — have a kind of totalizing ambition. They pretend to novelistic thoroughness. But can a mere film contain and explain an entire human life? (And let’s not forget, those impressively long, years-in-the-making documentaries often are made by white filmmakers about black subjects.) Ross understands that it can’t, and he’s found a way to express that through form. He immerses us in this world, but then lets the mystery be.

Ross represents a director halfway between outsider and secret-sharer – a teacher who came from elsewhere and laid down roots in this community. By contrast, Bing Liu, the director of Minding the Gap, is one of the subjects of his own documentary. Similarly longitudinal in its ambitions, Liu’s film follows the lives of three close friends, all skaters in the depressed Rust Belt town of Rockford, Illinois, who’ve known each other since they were little kids. We see their early years in rough glimpses – attempting skate tricks, goofing around, breaking their boards in both playfulness and rage. They’re a surprisingly diverse trio: Zack is the floppy-haired, charming pothead anarchist; Keire is African American, with a bubbly, boyish personality; Bing is a quiet, Chinese-American introvert. None have good relationships with their families; indeed, they say early on that they formed their own family together – “to look out for each other, because no one else was looking out for us.”

Like Hale County, Minding the Gap focuses on expressive moments and emotional movements rather than narrative arcs. The film is filled with lengthy, sensuous skateboarding scenes, which feel meditative, therapeutic; we sense that these kids skated not because it was fun, but because it helped them to survive.

But as the years pass, the film begins to question some of the trio’s own notions of self-knowledge. Each of their families has suffered from some form of domestic abuse – from casual beatings to far more sinister acts. And none of the boys has ever really reckoned with this dark reality in their lives. They have escaped through skating and friendship – but that kind of avoidance merely kicks the can down the road. Zack winds up with his own family early on in life, and we learn that he might be reenacting some of the same things that happened to him. As they become men, and as their lives diverge, the trio begin to ask how well they really know each other, and themselves.

This sense of questioning becomes part of the aesthetic of the film. As both subject and filmmaker, Bing is often behind the camera, but he’s also a participant in much of the movie: The people onscreen know him and trust him, and there’s a genuine intimacy to their interactions. But eventually, he trains the camera on his own life, as he decides to delve into his family’s past and the abuse he suffered. A visit back home and an interview with his mother make for incredibly powerful scenes, but they also reveal the limitations of our knowledge and vision. Minding the Gap, like Hale County This Morning, This Evening, is the work of a filmmaker willing to acknowledge that sometimes, seeing better, seeing differently, is more important than understanding.